Cartilage degeneration is one of the most common conditions found in the joints of patients with osteoarthritis (OA), a disease which is reported to affect 13.9% of adults in the US aged 25 and older, and 33.6% (12.4 million) of those aged 65 and above. The social burden of OA is likely to increase at a greater pace in the future, due to the prevalence of obesity and an unprecedented increase in the elderly population, making cartilage degeneration a huge healthcare problem.
Articular cartilage injuries are one of the most challenging issues in musculoskeletal medicine, due to a poor intrinsic ability of this tissue to repair, and a lack of treatments showing long-term efficacy which has prompted research into tissue engineering (an in vitro strategy incorporating cells, scaffolds and cellular factors to regenerate functional tissue).
These efforts seem to have paid off. A team of material engineers at Harvard, led by Professor Zhigang Suo, has developed an extremely stretchy, robust, biocompatible and self-healing hydrogel, which researchers believe has the potential to become a next-generation cartilage repair treatment option for human joint defects.
Treatments for OA aim to reduce pain and consequent immobility, and therapeutic strategies vary depending on the degree of severity. The management of patients with OA in the early stages mainly consists of lifestyle changes and pharmacological analgesics, but for OA in the advanced stages, surgical interventions (e.g. autologous chondrocyte implantation) and device-based treatment modalities (e.g. joint replacement implantation) are often regarded as the primary therapeutic options. However, in most cases these invasive therapies do not typically replicate the structural characteristics of healthy cartilage with its associated biomechanical properties, resulting in failed cartilage regeneration and the need for complex revision surgeries. Considering the drawbacks of current surgical approaches, as well as a crowded global joint replacement implant market, there is massive commercial interest in the emerging area of tissue engineering.
Hydrogels are widely used as scaffolds for cartilage tissue engineering research because of their great biocompatibility and elasticity, yet the scope of their applications is often limited due to low stretchability and poor mechanical stability. “For a gel to work in those settings, it has to be able to stretch and expand under compression and tension without breaking,” said one of the contributors, Jeong-Yun Sun. Unlike conventional hydrogels, this newly synthesized gel is capable of maintaining its enhanced toughness and elasticity over multiple stretches, and is able to stretch to 21 times its original length. This newly synthesized hydrogel is a strong hybrid polymer created by using a mixture of polyacrylamide and alginate to create a complex network far stronger than gels formed from polyacrylamide or alginate alone. The chemical structure of this network allows the whole structure to pull apart very slightly over a large area instead of permitting the gel to crack. Even with a huge crack, the gel was found to still stretch to 17 times its initial length. A hydrogel of this superior stretchability, toughness and recoverability is likely to become the perfect scaffold, providing great promise for developing a novel cartilage repair strategy using a tissue engineering approach.
This exciting development will take researchers a step closer to designing novel functional cartilage tissue substitutes to challenge the current treatment paradigm for cartilage repair. In addition, GlobalData expects further research in regards to the potential clinical benefits introduced by this next-generation cartilage scaffold, which could have enormous market implications.
“Super Gel” Provides Insight into Novel Cartilage Repair Strategies”
Related research: “North America Orthopedic Devices Market Outlook to 2018 – Arthroscopy, Cranio Maxillofacial Fixation (CMF), Hip Reconstruction, Knee Reconstruction, Spinal Surgery, Orthobiologics, Trauma Fixation and Others”
This expert insight was written by Linda Tian, GlobalData’s research analyst for orthopedic devices.